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Biden Is Learning How to Deal with Putin

The era of seeking a “predictable and stable” relationship seems to be over. Will an era of seriousness follow?
January 27, 2022
Biden Is Learning How to Deal with Putin
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and US President Joe Biden shake hands as they meet for a Russia-United States summit at the Villa La Grange. Sergei Bobylev/TASS (Photo by Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images)

Last week, President Biden tripped over his messaging by suggesting a “minor incursion” by Russian forces into Ukraine would not trigger a strong response from the West. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded by tweet: “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations.”

This week, so far at least, Biden and his administration have done a much better job, not only in messaging but in action.

On Wednesday, the administration and NATO formally rejected Russian demands publicized last month that NATO close the door to membership for Ukraine and other aspiring states and return to the European security landscape of the 1990s—i.e., before the enlargement of NATO. That clear message should eliminate concerns that the administration would concede fundamental security issues and the right of countries to determine their own future and alliances.

Asked by a reporter Tuesday whether he would consider sanctioning Putin personally if Russia were to re-invade Ukraine, Biden answered affirmatively. I have long argued that Putin and his immediate circle should be sanctioned. The United States and European Union have rightly sanctioned like-minded tyrant Alexander Lukashenko in next-door Belarus, and Putin has done far worse things, but remained untouched.

If Putin were to invade Ukraine for a second time (the first time was in 2014 when he also illegally annexed Crimea) and we didn’t sanction him, the question would be: What more would he have to do before we really put the squeeze on him? Putin has paid no personal price for interference in our elections; the attacks, poisonings, and murders of opposition figures and journalists; his support for the murderous Assad regime in Syria; his latest dalliance with regimes in Venezuela and Cuba—the list of egregious behavior and actions runs long.

Recent legislation in both the Senate and House calling for sanctions on Putin triggered a vociferous response from the Kremlin. “Introducing sanctions against the head of the government or the head of Russia is an extreme measure which is comparable to a breakdown in relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a briefing two weeks ago.

Putin thinks he belongs in elite and polite company among world leaders. Sanctioning him would deny him his delusions of grandeur and also place at risk the billions of dollars he reportedly has accumulated illicitly over the years. Doing the same to those closest to him, denying them the opportunity to vacation in the West and send their children to Western schools, would certainly get their attention and possibly cause dissension in their ranks. Knowing that he and they might be sanctioned—or suffer other potential serious consequences—if Russian forces move again into Ukraine, might deter Putin from pulling the trigger.

Beyond possible sanctions on Putin, the Pentagon on Monday placed 8,500 American troops on alert for possible deployment to fellow NATO member states near Russia. Even better would be if Biden actually deployed those forces to the region now, instead of waiting until the Russian tanks start to roll. NATO allies such as the UK, Denmark, and Spain are doing their fair share, too.

The administration has ramped up its military assistance to Ukraine and given the green light to other NATO members to transfer weapons to Kyiv. This includes Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, as well as additional Javelin anti-tank weapons. Helping Ukraine defend itself is consistent with our values and interests. After all, Ukrainians are not asking the West to fight this fight for them. Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have ruled that out anyway, mistakenly telegraphing to Putin what our limitations are. Instead, Ukrainians want us to help provide them the means to deter a Russian invasion or beef up their capacity for an insurgency, if needed.

The administration is also exploring ways to fill energy needs for Europeans in case Russia cuts off gas deliveries. Europe receives roughly one-third of its gas and crude oil from Russia, which has already reduced the flows of gas to Europe. Ukrainians, other Europeans, and the administration need to plan for the possibility that Russia will sabotage the pipeline that runs through Ukraine—with or without an actual invasion.

Russia depends on the pipeline running through Ukraine to carry gas to the rest of Europe. Construction on the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would bypass Ukraine by sending gas directly from Russia to Germany, is complete, but the green light to operationalize it awaits certification. Moscow may try to speed up and force the issue by destroying the route through Ukraine, which would lead to even greater cuts in supplies of gas to Europe. That is a reminder of the mistake the Biden administration made in waiving sanctions on Nord Stream 2, though the Trump administration deserves criticism, too, since it talked a good game against the pipeline but did nothing to stop its construction, the bulk of which occurred on its watch.

While the administration’s recent messaging and actions are commendable, they are also late. Significant military assistance to Ukraine should have been flowing much sooner. The diplomacy agreed to by the administration with Russian officials should have been preconditioned on a complete and verifiable Russian withdrawal from the border. And Nord Stream 2 should have been sanctioned.

At least the administration’s mantra calling for “predictable and stable” relations with Moscow seems to be a thing of the past. That revealed a naïveté about the challenge they faced in Putin, who foments and depends on unpredictability and instability. The administration belatedly appears to have realized that Putin only understands strength and pushback.

When Turkey shot down a Russian military aircraft in November 2015 for repeatedly violating its airspace, killing two pilots, Russia did nothing in response. When U.S. forces killed several hundred Russian mercenaries for threatening American commandos in February 2018, both sides kept the incident quiet. Putin seems to take NATO’s Article 5 security guarantees seriously and does not want a confrontation with the Alliance. (Russia’s cyberattack against Estonia in 2007 was an aberration.) While Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it aspires to join and is bordered by four NATO countries (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania).

NATO cannot yield to Russian demands to close the door on Ukraine (and Georgia), because that would give Moscow a de facto veto over independent countries’ aspirations in violation of the 1999 Charter for European Security,which “reaffirm(ed) the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance.” Like the Charter of Paris in 1990, it also reiterated that no state “can consider any part of the (European) area as its sphere of influence.”

So this week was a better one for the Biden administration in addressing the Putin challenge. But the week is not over, nor is the crisis. The Biden administration needs to continue down this stronger path and abandon hopes that we can get along with Putin. It is the only way to avert a crisis in Europe.

David J. Kramer

David J. Kramer is managing director for global policy at the George W. Bush Institute and served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration.